Closer Look So You Want to Have a False Memory

Imagine you are a subject in a psychology experiment in which you are assigned to listen carefully to a list of 15 words, knowing that you will later be tested on these words. The words are bed, rest, awake, tired, dream, wake, snooze, blanket, doze, slumber, snore, nap, peace, yawn, and drowsy. Now cover the list of words and indicate whether or not each of the following words was on the list:

On the List?

bed television ---

If you are like most people, you checked yes following the word sleep. Indeed, many people are so certain that sleep was on the first list that they argue with the experimenter when they are told that, in fact, it was not. Thus, if you checked yes indicating that sleep was on the list during the recall phase of the task, and you really remember seeing the word sleep, then you just had a false memory. Approximately 80 percent of normal subjects are induced to have this false memory—that is, they believe that sleep was on the original list (Roediger, Balota, & Watson, 2001; Roediger, McDermott, & Robinson, 1998).

The procedure you just completed was developed by psychologists Henry Roediger and Kathleen McDermott (1995). They devised the technique based on the spreading activation model of memory. This model of memory holds that mental elements (such as words or images) are stored in memory along with associations to other elements in memory. For example, doctor is associated with nurse in most people's memories, because of the close connection or similarity between these concepts. The mental association between these two concepts can be demonstrated easily; the speed of deciding that a letter string (doctor) is a word or not is faster if it is preceded by an associated concept (nurse) relative to an unrelated word (table). The explanation is that the activation of nurse in your memory spreads through an association network and activates other related concepts, such as doctor, allowing them to be recognized faster.

How does this explain the false memory for sleep in the exercise? Like any concept, sleep is stored in your memory in a network of associations to other words, such as bed, rest, awake, tired, dream, wake, snooze, blanket, and doze. This network of associations is depicted in Figure 10.1.

Activation from the multiple words on the first list spreads or primes the critical concept on the recall list (sleep) in the memory network of the person studying the list. The activation from all the words related to sleep (e.g., bed, rest, and tired) sums up and makes the concept of sleep more likely to be recalled or recognized later, even though the actual word sleep was not on the original list.

Researchers have also shown that the probability of a false memory in this task is a function of the number of words on the first list that are associated with the critical word (e.g., sleep). That is, the sum of the association strength from the list items to the critical item determines false recall of the critical item. Association strength is determined by how frequently the critical word (e.g., sleep) is named when people are asked for the first word that comes to mind from some other word (e.g., bed). In fact, psychologists have determined lists of common associates to a whole variety of words, and the sum of association strength of the listed items to the critical item is what determines the probability of false recall (Roediger et al., 2001).

How is this material related to the psychoanalytic idea of false memories? First, this material highlights how most cognitive psychologists, even those with strong scientific values, believe that false memories can occur. It is accepted as fact that humans have a constructive memory; that is, memory contributes to or influences in various ways (adds to, subtracts from, and so on) what is recalled. Rather than referring to pristine and objective retrieval of facts from the past, human memory is fallible and open to error and corruption. Moreover, the corruption is most likely to occur when elements with strong associations to each other converge repeatedly in experience. In this condition, the person is likely to recognize or recall something associated to those elements, even if that new element never occurred. For example, during interrogation, imagine that a person is repeatedly asked about an event in many different leading ways. After some time, the person is asked something that is new but related to the first information. The person may then be more likely to recall this new event as happening, not because it did happen but because it is associated with the previously presented information. This is how innocent mistakes of recognition on word lists might help us understand the larger and more dramatic false memories that have been documented in certain legal cases, such as that of Holly Ramona.

Figure 10.1

Hypothetical network of concepts related to the word sleep. Source: Adapted from Roediger, Balota, & Watson, 2001.

Figure 10.1

Hypothetical network of concepts related to the word sleep. Source: Adapted from Roediger, Balota, & Watson, 2001.

acknowledge and overcome them or at least deal with them in a mature, adult fashion. Therapists, like many other people, can also suf fer from a confirmatory bia — the tendency to look only for evidence that confirms their previous hunch and to no look for evidence that might disconfirm their belief. If a therapist believes that child hood trauma is the cause of most adult problems, he or she will most likely probe for memories of childhood trauma. Compliant and suggestible patients are then often induced to spend long periods of time trying to imagine what events must have happened in their childhoods to produce their current dif ficulties. Meanwhile, the thera pist relates stories of other patients with similar problems who were helped by recalling and coping with memories of childhood abuse. The therapist, as an "authority" on how to get better , stands ready to authenticate any possible memory of trauma that the patient might produce. These are the ideal conditions for constructing a shared reality that, even though both parties are confident of its authenticit , is not true.

However, this position must be balanced with some known facts about the rates of various forms of child abuse. Recent surveys suggest that a remarkable amount of trauma is inflicted on children. For example, in 1998 there were appro ximatel 903,000 child victims of maltreatment in the United States. Of these, 54 percent were for neglect, 23 percent involved physical abuse, 12 percent were sexual abuse cases, and approximately 5.5 percent each involved psychological abuse and medical neglect. In this reporting year, an estimated 1,100 children died of abuse and neglect. Of these fatalities, 77 percent were under the age of five years! (All statistics are from U.S Department of Health and Human Services, 2000.)

A Closer Look

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